Tuesday, March 21, 2006

My Life As A “Charity Case”

The following was reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer last Saturday:

"Sister Louise Ackers, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, and Ruth Steinert Foote have been passionate about women's ordination in the Roman Catholic Church for more than 20 years. And next Saturday, they will sponsor an appearance by one of three women in the world illegally ordained as Roman Catholic bishops..."

Rich Leonardi is from Cincinnati, and has posted on this subject in his weblog Ten Reasons. I have been led to believe I have "opened a can of worms" in bringing this discussion to the question of official sanction. There are those who would ask, "Where in the hell does he get off by doing this?"

Well, I'll tell ya.

The parish school I attended as a boy in the 1960s, was staffed by members of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, an offshoot of the original Sisters in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and the order founded by Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton. They were the backbone for the Church's education and health care systems, in one of Middle America's greatest cities.

They've come a long way since then. Recently, they announced on their website, the "World Day of Prayer for Women's Ordination," and leave us with the distinct impression, of their willingness to cooperate with any future "ordination" of priestesses. Presumedly, their role as champions against patriarchy and oppression is secure -- enough so as to overlook their own role in the "bad old days."

My first grade teacher, Sister Mary Lewis (her real name, as I don't give a rat's behind!), beat the crap out of me. By this I mean she would grab a six-year old boy by his arm, and beat him repeatedly on the back with a clenched fist. She was not above head games either. After demanding that you apologize for your offense, she would answer with "Oh, you are NOT sorry!" I was one of the lucky ones. A girl in the class had trouble answering questions put to her, possibly due to a learning disability. She was barely given a chance to stand before Sister rushed to her desk and attacked her physically. This could go on for several consecutive days, as though part of some perverse daily ritual. Several classmates had wet their pants in their desks at one time or another, possibly out of sheer terror.

There was no escape once you reached the second grade. If "Miss H" found you more than she could handle, she'd go across the hall for some "muscle" from... guess who?

Still, I remember when my sister Mary was in the hospital in the mid-sixties, and had occasion to see Sister in her infirmity. As I recall, Mary described her as apologizing profusely for the injuries she had brought upon us.

In later years, I learned that the Sister who was principal back then, was in the infirmary at the Motherhouse. My attempts to see her about ten years ago, were put off by the various Sisters in charge of her care. I gave no indication of any hidden reason for my visit, and she died before I could confront her with any lingering questions about those days. To tell the truth, I'm not really sure what I would have said. Maybe just... hello.

I suppose I turned out alright, but according to a classmate with whom I spoke two years ago, others were not so lucky.

Then there was another Sister Mary Somebody, my brother's fourth-grade teacher, a native of Ireland who wasn't above calling some miscreant a "jack-ass." It seems Steve was the subject of a lengthy phone conversation between her and our Mom -- a conversation that was cut short when it was learned we were listening in on the extension.

My eighth-grade teacher, who doubled as principal, was... well, not known for her interpersonal skills. We eighth-graders would be given responsibilities over the younger ones during recreation -- "squad leaders," we were called. Once I was holding the restroom door open for my young charges, as they made their way to the cafeteria line. Sister walked by, and in a sarcastic tone, told me: "You are doing a great job." I didn't quite get it, so I asked what she meant. "Don't you ever cross me, or I'll smack you," she responded. I still didn't quite get it. Right about that time, my parish went through its own proverbial post-Vatican II melodrama; you know, the one where the old-school, fuddy-duddy pastor is at odds with the young, dynamic associate pastor, and everybody chooses sides. Turns out Sister might have been a "player" herself, as there were whispers that she was collaborating with an influential family of the parish, on a way to get rid of the old pastor.

Now, I should be very clear in this story, that I cannot prove any of this connivence. For me, it is little more than hearsay. But I knew more than one person who claimed intimate knowledge of the unholy alliance.

One of them was my father.

Dad remembered a very different Sisters of Charity, women who lived up to their name and their charism. As the son of a man who was known to, uh, drink a bit, life at home was not always a happy one. The good Sisters were not unaware of certain local goings-on, and knew how to find sufficient after-school distractions for a troubled young man, from altar service to band practice. He remembered how happy they were in their vocations, and stayed in touch with one in particular, Sister Ann Simien, until her death.

I too have happy memories of some of them. One of them, Sister Shiela Marie (later Sister Jacqueline) took me to be unusually bright, and attempted her own "gifted and talented" program for me, by giving me challenging books to read. Let's face it; Bishop Sheen is more than most fifth-graders are likely to handle. Sister was also quite adept on ice skates, and I can still remember her sharing our delight at an impromptu hockey game.

I have also since read of how things transpired for women Religious in this country, as the century reached mid-point; how the postwar boom was met with greater demands on Catholic education and other apostolates. Sisters were able to go to college, to learn new ideas, only to return to being overworked and undercompensated, at times under the supervision of men who showed little understanding of their situation. (An fascinating inside account is Nun: A Memoir, by Mary Gilligan Wong.) The cracks in the ediface were forming, and it took an ecumenical council, and a subsequent revolution in popular culture, to bring those tensions to the breaking point. And that's just the short version.

Like I said, I was one of the lucky ones. But why make these childhood memories the object of so much attention?

A major premise of those who agitate for "reform" in the Church, is that some sort of "power sharing" with these women would be the herald of a new, enlightened era for the Church, and a kinder, gentler presence in the world. But if we really want to know what they would do in the future, we need only remember what they have done up until the present. A generation of Catholic schoolchildren, many of whom were NEVER touched inappropriately by a priest, have stories similar to my own, or worse. These accounts are just insignificant enough to fade into memory, and are remarkable only in their sheer volume.

But I would pose a question to the good Sisters, should they be contemplating a boat cruise in the near future, amidst the waves of their own foolishness.

Imagine if the "volume" were turned up. What then?


Rich Leonardi said...


The short answer is, that was then and this is now. In other words, the abuses of Sister Mary Elephant were due to the flaws in the patriarchal system, the "Old Church." Thank God, the argument goes, we've reformed the system. Ours is a better, enlightened sisterhood for it.

David L Alexander said...


The "short answer" begs even more questions: how is it that the same forces who were unwitting "victims" have since become accessories to the corruption? Is it "enlightened" to find one's numbers sadly diminished, one's original mission reduced significantly in scale? And would not abusing priests themselves be unwitting "victims" as well?

Rich Leonardi said...

how is it that the same forces who were unwitting "victims" have since become accessories to the corruption?

What corruption? If only the laity embraced the true reforms of the council and got on with the revolution, we wouldn't have all these problems. Unfortunately, there is a neo-conservative movement conspiring to overturn Vatican II; we must be vigilant.

Is it "enlightened" to find one's numbers sadly diminished, one's original mission reduced significantly in scale?

That's why we need continue the dialogue about things like ordination. An open, more inclusive church is a growing church.

And would not abusing priests themselves be unwitting "victims" as well?

Absolutely. They too were chafing, perhaps unwittingly, at the vestiges of patriarchy.

FWIW, David, some of these responses are near-verbatim quotations from conversations with various lay ministers in my parish.

David L Alexander said...

"FWIW, David, some of these responses are near-verbatim quotations from conversations..."

...which, FWIW, I've heard before.

Here's the problem in a nutshell, Rich, specifically at the parish level. We start tossing words around as if everyone already "got the memo" on them. Words like "patriarchy," "inclusiveness," and "dialogue." Where are they mentioned in the documents on Vatican II? Where is the evidence of these supposed virtues in action?

More succinctly, what do the words mean???

If the tables were turned, and one was already part of the status quo, would one be as willing to "dialogue" with one's detractors?

Do we embody the results of these "reforms," or are we just the ones on top for the time being?

When people start throwing words at me as if I should know their meaning, I demand a definition. Give these intellectual lightweights to me for ten minutes. They don't know diddley.